Travels, Explorations, and Empires : Writings from the Era of Imperial Expansion, 1770-1835

The 3,200 pages of Travels, Explorations and Empires are a welcome addition to the modern-edition travelogues that are increasingly becoming available to scholars and students of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Edited by Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson (along with a number of other contributing editors mentioned above), this eight-volume work recalls the great British travel compilations of John Green or John Pinkerton. Indeed, this compendium’s eight volumes bring together selections from approximately a hundred travelogues, most of which have not been reedited since they were first published in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

Selections in this compilation-which are facsimile reproductions-generally run from fifteen to about sixty pages. The editors of the project have retrofitted these eighteenth and nineteenth-century texts with a modern critical apparatus. The two major editorial interventions of the project come in the form of two “general introductions” provided by Fulford and Kitson, the first in volume one, and the second in volume five. Volume editors have also provided more specific remarks corresponding to each geographical area, e.g., “The Middle East” as well as a short forward before each of the travelogues. At the end of each volume one also finds a limited number of endnotes, as well as suggestions for further reading under the rubrics of both primary and secondary sources. Volumes four and eight, respectively, each have extensive indexes.

In the first of the abovementioned general introductions, Fulford and Kitson justify the work’s periodization (1770-1835) and the exclusively British-American focus as a function of genre, history, and ideological coherence. This was, according to Fulford and Kitson, the “age of the travel narrative,” the time when Cook and Park became household names, and the era when such travelers began to receive increasing institutional support from both national governments and organizations such as the semi-official African Association. Following, on a certain level, the progression of the title itself, the authors of this introduction put forth a powerful view of the phenomenon of travel writing within which exploration began to be “intimately tied to Empire,” to an “imperial imagination” and to the “ideologies” within “a Britain and a United States that were gradually defining themselves as nations with missions to expand and to govern new land” (1:xv). While some of the seemingly causal relationships that the editors develop between travel and empire may raise hackles among certain historians (especially among those historians who study European travelogues from the pre-or nascent Empire, Renaissance era), Fulford and Kitson are very careful to emphasize the specificity of the traveler and writer’s perspective. Indeed, while the editors recognize their debt to the important work of Mary Louise Pratt, they also maintain that “though the eyes of the West may have been . . . increasingly imperial at this time, their gaze was often wandering, their vision varied” (1:xvii).

This mild skepticism vis-a-vis strictly poststructuralist, postcolonial or discourse-theory views of travel writing is even more clearly articulated in the “general introduction” to the second set of volumes (vols. 5-8). In addition to tackling the important semantic differences between a chronicle of travel and that of true exploration, Fulford and Kitson here reject the notion of a monolithic national travelogue by highlighting the different institutional discourses found during the era as well as their divergent relationships to the genealogy of Empire. If one were to look at Empire-related travelogues along a continuum, the editors seem to suggest, one might find James Cook’s official and lavishly funded explorations and publications on the one side and the anecdotal memoir of the loner Mungo Park on the other. This emphasis on authorial status not only invites the reader of Travels, Explorations and Empires to consider the importance of eighteenth-century perspective (official traveler, adventurer, woman, or indigenous person, etc.) but also our own critical views. Indeed, in a short but useful dialogue with some of the scholars who have contributed most to current interpretations of the travelogue, the editors chart the shift of critical momentum from Edward Said’s Europe/Orient binarism to more ambiguous treatments of the colonial encounter including Homi K. Babba’s view of colonialism “as a psychic and textual event of complexity” (5:xv), Nicholas Thomas’ rejection of the “tribal other” (5:xv), Jonathan Lamb’s emphasis of the competing epistemologies informing the understanding of colonial encounters in the South Seas, and finally, James Clifford’s view that travel writing has a necessarily generative role in the production of cultural identity.

But as interesting as the interaction between the project’s editors and contemporary criticism may be, it is the texts themselves that will ultimately be of greatest use to scholars and students. The genre of travel writing is obviously conceived of broadly by the editors, and rightly so. As is the case for each geographical area, the volume on North America includes a variety of different types of accounts, ranging from James Adair’s sensitive description of his meeting with a Cherokee rainmaker (1775) to Washington Irving’s mythical adaptation of the fur trapper Benjamin Bonneville’s travels through the Rocky Mountains and California in the 1830s. This breadth is also found in the volume dedicated to “Africa,” which not only contains the most obvious choice of travelogues such as James Bruce’s travels in Ethiopia, but also an extensive selection from Christian Friedrich Damberger’s wonderfully rendered “travel hoax,” his fabricated sixteen year voyage from Cape Colony to Morocco. Given this dedication to breadth, volume editors were obviously forced to make difficult choices. In the volume on Africa, for example, one of the early nineteenth century’s most captivating texts, John Barrow’s An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa . . . (1801), is accorded only twelve pages. And yet, despite the fact that one sometimes wishes for longer selections, Fulford and Kitson are not wrong to suggest that the texts that they (and the volume editors) have chosen will allow historians to assess the importance of travel writing as a generative force within the creation of Empire. While one would suspect that most historians engaged in closing the breech between the multiple expressions of this genre and a geopolitical ideology will turn to original editions of these travelogues-some of which run to 600 pages-Travels, Explorations and Empires will in fact facilitate the scholar’s task. Indeed, this compilation will be of enormous utility to those historians or literature specialists seeking to contextualize their own focus-the travelogues on India for example-by allowing them to evaluate effectively the genre as it “manifests itself” in other regions.

The only substantive criticism that this reviewer has regarding this collection is that the enterprise itself, whose subtitle could have been Principal Navigations . . . of the English Nation, downplays the fundamental internationalization of the travelogue during (and well before) the era concerned. Indeed, while British travelogues of this “Romantic era” no doubt reflect national concerns, the exclusive focus on English-speaking travelers in Travels, Explorations and Empires may suggest-to contemporary readers-that late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Anglophone audiences accessed a self-contained nexus of ideas regarding foreign lands when nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, in addition to the fact that many foreign travelogues were readily accessible in translation, eighteenth and nineteenth-century compilations resembling Travels, Explorations and Empires-including Green and Pinkerton’s-generally brought together a selection of Portuguese, Dutch, French and British writings on each geographical area. In many ways, the decision to produce a collection of Anglo-American travelogues speaks to the very phenomenon that this contemporary compilation seeks to identify, the authority of empire.